Counting Latkes

There are fifty latkes on this tray,” my 95-year-old mother says.

I nod and continue peeling potatoes. My sister is frying. My niece is chopping onions. My mother spreads another paper towel on a cookie sheet, and continues counting.

It’s that time of year. Where the women in our family gather to make latkes, while gossiping about life and sharing secrets. There are four generations in our family, ranging from my mother down to my youngest granddaughter and a great niece who both recently turned two.

So, there is a great deal of talking and laughing.

“I have news.” My niece stops the blender. “I’m using an iPhone app to help get pregnant.”

“Five, six, what?” Mom’s eyes widen. Birth control was not around in her day, let alone using a phone to track one’s menstrual cycle.

As my niece explains the details, my mom’s expression turns to wonderment, much like a toddler’s. She’s trying to process and store this information. But unlike a toddler who will hold the answer tightly in his little fist and move on to the next curious item, my mother will forget and ask me again. And again. And again. Dementia is taking her to foreign places.

“How many latkes are you going to make?” she asks, tossing the app discussion aside.

“One hundred,” I say.

“That many? One, two, three.” She looks up. “What about this app?”

My niece explains patiently. But mom is back to counting. That’s her job now.

I want her to cut the onions. Crack the eggs. Or add the flour. But the simple things in life have become as confusing as new technology. Dementia does not discriminate.

And so, she counts.

“There’s forty on this tray.” Mom picks one up and takes a bite. “Thirty-nine. How many are you going to make?”

“One hundred,” I answer. The batter sizzles. The latkes turn a golden brown.

Something in the crackling of the oil, or perhaps the whirring of the food processor, or the taste of the crispy latke, snaps my mom into awareness. “Your phone tells you when to make love?”

“Not exactly.” My niece explains again, but within minutes, the mom that could understand, has traveled away.

“Whose recipe is this?” my mom asks. And then resumes counting.

My tears start slowly, then fall into the batter. I want her to remember. I want her to stop growing older. I want her to look at me with those eyes that scolded me as a kid.

“It’s your recipe, Grandma. From your mother.” My niece picks up her phone. “Let’s take a selfie.”

They lean close together, staring up at the camera. My mom’s smile is as distant as the look on her face.

I wonder what she is thinking, where she is going in her mind. And how long before she goes too far to return to us.

“I’m going to frame this and give it to my baby,” my niece says.

“You’re having a baby?” This time my mom’s smile comes from her heart.

“Not yet. But if the app is right.”

“What app?”

My niece nods her head at me. The tears in her eyes, match those in mine. “It’s not important,” she says. “How many latkes do we have now?”

My mom starts counting again.

One day it may be me asking the same questions over and over. And it will be my grandchildren helping me remember.

But one thing I know, the women in our family will forever carry on our tradition of sharing secrets while frying, eating and counting latkes.

What family traditions are close to your heart?

Click HERE for Jamie Emaus’s Four Generation Latke recipe

Jamie Emaus is an author/blogger. Her debut picture book, Latkes for Santa Claus , was inspired by her own blended family and their tradition of making latkes every Hanukkah. 

  • Alana
    Posted at 17:56h, 09 December

    Enjoyed your imagery; I was there smelling the onions and helping to grate the potatoes. One of my grandmas died before I was born and the other when I was 7; my Mom when I was 12 so I have never had the experience of working with older relatives to make a meal. But, I have known the pain of dementia taking a loved one,,such a bittersweet post. Watching a loved one in the world of dementia has to be one of the most painful things, especially when the day comes where they no longer know who you are.

  • Diane klapper
    Posted at 19:30h, 09 December

    Another great story and very true. I can picture all in your kitchen with all the love that you share.

  • Elaine Kretchman
    Posted at 22:45h, 09 December

    Try the Latkes made with Zucchini and Gruyere also excellent. My son in law and I are in charge of Latke making. Serving with homemade applesauce plus lox fleurette’s from Trader Joes is nice as well. The hint to making perfect latkes is draining the potato water first.

    When its all over ……we are only our stories. Watching Schindlers list the other night I heard the background lullabye my Bubbie sang with me at her feet. It was about a mother calling her “kinderlach” to learn their Aleph beit while the stove was warm.” Maybe it was a Molly Picon song. All I know is it still is my cherished memory.

  • Terry Thompson
    Posted at 01:37h, 17 December

    Great story of wonderful family traditions..
    You made those fun times come to life

  • Evelyn Krieger
    Posted at 17:46h, 21 December

    Thanks for sharing this, Jamie. You make me want to start making my own latkes. I love to cook and bake for my family. Over the years I’ve made my kids hamentashen, challah, birthday cakes, brisket, banana bread, and chocolate dreidels, but I drew the line at latkes after almost burning down the house.

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